Hunger a ‘Serious’ problem in India, more acute than even Nepal and Bangladesh

The Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2017 is just out.  India ranks 100th among 119 developing countries.  The country has been given a score of 31.4 score in the index and that puts it at a high end ‘Serious’ zone. Even North Korea with 93 rank and Iraq at 78th place fare better than India.

A comparison of India’s rank with that of all its neighbouring countries also projects a sad picture for it.  While China at 29 is far ahead of us but Nepal, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh with respective scores of 72, 77, 84 and 88 have also done better than India.  Pakistan’s 106th rank is the only face safer it seems.

Different indicators drive hunger in different regions of the world.  In South Asia, child undernutrition, as measured by child stunting and child wasting, is higher than in Africa south of the Sahara.

Three-quarters of South Asia’s population live in India and hence the situation here strongly influences the regional score as well.  According to data collected in 2015-16, more than a fifth (21 per cent) of India children suffered from wasting.  This is despite a substantial improvement over the past 25 years.  Only three other countries in this year’s GHI – Djibouti, Sri Lanka, and South Sudan – have data or estimates showing child wasting above 20 percent in the latest period (2012–2016).

India’s child stunting rate is also relatively high at 38.4 percent despite improvements owing to implementation of schemes like the Integrated Child Development Services and the National Health Mission.  In 1992 the child shunting rate was at 61.9 percent.

The GHI lists out a few areas of concerns for India that include (1) the timely introduction of complementary foods for young children (that is, the transition away from exclusive breastfeeding), which declined from 52.7 percent to 42.7 percent between 2006 and 2016; (2) the share of children between 6 and 23 months old who receive an adequate diet—a mere 9.6 percent for the country; and (3) household access to improved sanitation facilities—a likely factor in child health and nutrition—which stood at 48.4 percent as of 2016.

Lower the rank, higher the hunger

The GHI 2017 has listed out 119 countries.  It has given numerical ranking in an order that shows the least hunger country at the highest rank and shows the 1992, 2000, 2008, and 2017 GHI scores for each country. Lower is the numeric rank, highest is the hunger.  The value of the GHI indicators are derived from various factors: prevalence of undernourishment, child wasting, child stunting, and child mortality—for each country, including their historic values. The individual indicators are particularly important because the nature of hunger and undernutrition—and therefore the right mix of policies and interventions to address them—varies from country to country.

The GHI 2017 could not include in its calculation two countries that have been facing currently facing famine.  But the Index shows that despite many improvements world over, the level of hunger and inequality that exists is not doing any good to humanity and certainly posing a great danger towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

Conflicts and inequality driving high hunger

Seven countries, according to the GHI 2017, suffer from levels of hunger that are alarming, and one country, the Central African Republic (CAR), suffers from a level that is extremely alarming. Seven of these eight countries are in Africa south of the Sahara: CAR, Chad, Liberia, Madagascar, Sierra Leone, Sudan, and Zambia. The exception is Yemen, located at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula.

For South Sudan and Somalia, the GHI could not gather sufficient data but says other data and systems designed to detect acute food-security crises, such as the Famine Early Warning System (FEWS NET), make clear that their hunger levels are extreme.

The GHI scores of the other two famine-threatened countries, Nigeria and Yemen, fall in the serious and alarming categories, respectively. In Nigeria, where 4.5 million of the total 180 million people, in the northeast of the country are experiencing or are at risk of famine, mainly due to ongoing violence spread by Boko Haram, reports the GHI. The rest of the country faces minimal food-security concerns and uneven levels of child under nutrition. The Nigerian crisis thus is also that of inequality.

In case of Yemen, the hunger crisis is fuelled by violent conflicts and affects almost 65 per cent of the people spread all over the country.  The Central African Republic (CAR), which has the highest 2017 GHI score, has suffered from instability, sectarian violence, and civil war since 2012.  There have been disruptions in livelihoods, markets thus weakening food security.  As of May 2017, the GHI reports, there were 500,000 internally displaced persons in this country of just 5 million people. The GHI also reports: Underlying CAR’s high GHI score are its very high undernourishment value of 58.6 percent, the highest in this year’s report, and its child mortality rate of 13 percent, the fourth highest in the report. The country’s child stunting and child wasting estimates are also high and cause for concern.

The GHI has reported that despite these challenges, there has been steady decline in hunger levels in each region. Eastern Europe and Commonwealth of Independent States experienced the greatest improvement between the 2000 and 2017 scores when measured in percentage, though not in absolute terms.  During this same time period, Africa south of the Sahara, which had the highest regional score in 2000, saw a 14-point decline in absolute GHI values, that’s the greatest.  Looking all the way back to 1992, however, Africa south of the Sahara and South Asia have made comparable progress; according to their GHI scores, hunger levels for these regions were remarkably close in 1992 and again in the most recent reference period, reported the GHI.

The India-Kenya comparison

The GHI reports that Kenya has made very significant progress in its scoring.  It has dropped its score by almost 44 percent since 2000.  We therefore decided to do a small comparison between Kenya and India, from the two critical regions.  Kenya has made a good progress and India is trying all out to be the fastest growing economy of the world.  Taking a few economic indicators and few human development indicators we have tried to present a table with all latest data that we could find from various sources.

Indicator India Kenya
GDP at Market Prices (USD) (2006) 2,256,397M.$ 70,529M.$
GDP per capita (USD) (2016) 1,704$ 1,455$
Education Exp (% of Budget) 3.64 (2016) 16.47 (2015)
Govt. Health Expenditure (% of Budget) 1.92 (2016) 12.80
Defence Expenditure (% of Budget) 17.24 (2016) 6.07 (2015)
Corruption Index (2016) 79 145
Global Competitiveness Ranking (2017) 40 91
Human Capital Index (2016) 105 102
Human Development Index (2015) 131 146
Global Peace Ranking (2017) 137 125
CO2 tonnes per capita (2015) 1.87 0.33

(Compilation by the author from various sources)

Economic development has certainly not meant good GHI ranking for India compared to Kenya.  India’s per capita GDP value is much more than Kenya but the spending on core social sectors is too less.  Our expenses on defence outnumber Kenya and even many developed countries by huge margins.

Something that also hurdles all that is being done is high level of corruption.  India is at a much higher corruption perception index than Kenya.  As José Ugaz, Chair of Transparency International mentions, “In too many countries, people are deprived of their most basic needs and go to bed hungry every night because of corruption, while the powerful and corrupt enjoy lavish lifestyles with impunity.”  India is certainly one of them.

In fact, economic development in India is proving to be highly inequitable with more riches getting concentrated in just about 1 per cent of the country’s super rich.  In fact, the current model of economic development that has been in practice for about three decades now, has increased severe inequalities.  In its just published Fiscal Monitor report, the International Monitoring Fund (IMF) has said that the due to the 30 years of globalisation and technological progress, while there has been overall decline in overall global inequality, the same within countries has increased.  In this three decades, 53 percent of countries have faced an increase in income inequality.  The IMF has emphasised on the fact that largest countries such as China, India and United States have seen high increase in inequality.

The WHI reports that Kenya’s score dropped by 44 percent in 17 years for various proactive measures.  Kenya has not only seen steady economic growth but also has worked to improve food security and nutrition.  In 2012, Kenya’s government put in place a National Nutrition Action Plan (NNAP), complemented by investments in agriculture, disaster-resilience, food-fortification, and other related initiatives.  However, all is not well in Kenya as well and many areas of the country are still lagging behind and face more serious hunger and nutrition challenges. The latest drought has also played a role in these laggings and the country needs huge investment to improve its food and nutrition security.

India too faces many challenges like Kenya and has in place many programmes.  However, it seems India has not been as successful as Kenya in climbing to a better score in the WHI.

Another report on India

Another recently published report has some more causes for worry for India and the globe.  The ‘UN’s State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2017’ has just warned that global hunger (in terms of undernourished people) is on rise again, after a prolonged period of decline.  According to this report the number of undernourished people in the globe increased to an estimated 815 million in 2016, that’s an addition by 38 million people compared to last year.

India, the report said, is home to 190.7 million of these undernourished people which accounts for 14.5 percent prevalence of hunger vis-à-vis the country’s population.  51.4 percent of women in the reproductive ages are anaemic in the country and 38.4 percent of children under five are stunted, this report states.  According to the report, stunting is impact of a long-term nutritional deprivation which may affect mental development, school performance and intellectual capacity. This shows how economic growth has not necessarily meant we have been able to perform well on social development indicators that are vital for the development to sustain.

Need for a new economic model

Droughts, floods and other disasters have also taken a heavy toll on our food and nutrition security.  The author’s personal experience shows how during drought people struggle to get necessary food and nutrition required for their bodies.  Especially the poor suffer the most.  Repeated events of drought make this situation chronic and most of our systems have not yet developed monitoring methods to recognise this.

India is boasting towards Direct Benefit Transfer to poor people and there is an effort to withdraw the distribution of food from Public Distribution Systems (PDS) and replace that with cash transfer.  Such policy measures are certainly not going to effectively serve the real challenges.  There have also been attempts to do away with freshly cooked meals in Mid-day Meal (MDM) programmes, and that too will impact the poor children negatively. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) has been very helpful to not only retain people in their homes and hearths during disasters but also retaining a portion of their purchasing power during drought periods, as our own experience shows.

While retaining some of these effective schemes are needed, India must evolve more dynamic policies that not only tackle the current hunger and health problems but also fight against some of these fuelled by the current economic model.  There is also a vital need to integrate our Climate Change Action Plans to all the development schemes, stop destruction of forests that are also a major source of food and nutrition for millions of people, and promote local agro-ecological practices that are linked to the food and nutrition security schemes.

Water security is another major aspect that the government needs to seriously look into and for that river basins have to be ecologically rejuvenated, surface water bodies revived and groundwater recharged.  Water security is also a must for sanitation coverage that has a lot of role in managing health issues such as stunting.  Sanitation then needs to move beyond just construction of toilets but cleaning our lands, rivers, water bodies and promotion of waste-free urbanisation.

Hunger is certainly a complex issue to handle, and the current economic growth model has failed in that.

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